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Journalism takes to the sky with drones

Journalism takes to the sky with drones

What's in your journalism kit? A notepad? A laptop? A smartphone? A video camera? How about a remote control aeroplane...?

Crazy as it might sound, The Washington Post published an article at the beginning of this month about reporters using unmanned aircraft, or drones, to collect footage for news stories.

The idea seems to be taking off. Last Friday the BBC College of Journalism published a piece about drone journalism, showing some impressive images of protests in Russia captured by an unmanned aircraft. Just yesterday, the International Journalists' Network and Mashable published a story detailing the "5 things you need to know about drone journalism".

So what is drone journalism? At its most simple, it could be a camera mounted on a remote control plane to collect pictures or film from above. At the more complex end, writer, data journalist and founder of the nascent Professional Society of Drone Journalists Matthew Schroyer theorises that drones could be used to collect data - air or water samples, for example, or topographical information - for use by reporters.

The Washington Post article points out other possible advantages of drones for journalism; they could be used to capture footage of natural disasters, which reporters would normally not be able to access with safety. They could also be used during media blackouts, enabling journalists to cover events from above, even when they can't be physically present. Most significantly, they're much cheaper than helicopters, and news organisations with relatively tight funding could still use them to collect aerial footage and improve their reporting.

Those who think the idea is too bizarre to catch on should note that drone journalism is up and running already. In addition to the images of the Moscow protests, a drone was also used by a start-up company named RoboKopter to capture this impressive footage of a demonstration in Warsaw. Back in May, news app The Daily published this video, shot from a drone-mounted camera, of the damage wrought by the tornado in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Drone journalism will become more practical in the US next year, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plans to propose new rules about the use of unmanned aircraft in US airspace, making it easier for police and other professionals to incorporate the technology into their work. At present, drones are not allowed to fly over 400 feet or close to "populated areas" or airports.

In the UK, a drone can currently only be used if the person operating it can see it at all times - that's to say, within a few hundred meters. There are stricter rules about the use of remote controlled aircraft in busy areas. This is a problem for journalists, at the BBC article notes that these are "exactly the sort of places where most news stories take place".

As well as legality, there are some ethical considerations to be taken into account. In particular, how would journalists ensure that cameras on drones are not misused to invade people's privacy?

At the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, journalism professor Matt Waite has already set up a 'Drone Journalism Lab' to consider these kind of problems. According the Lab website, students will learn to build their own drone platforms, but will also consider the ethical and legal dimensions of doing this new kind of journalism.

Waite and Steve Doig, a journalism professor at ASU, have collaborated with Matthew Schroyer in his creation of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, a group dedicated to developing the "ethical, educational and technological framework for drone journalism". The website is not yet up and running, but the domain name Dronejournalism.org will be one to watch.

Sources: The Washington Post, BBC College of Journalism, ridus.ru, International Journalists' Network/Mashable, Google Groups, RoboKopter, LA Times, dronejournalism.tumblr.com, diydrones.com, mentalmuition.com

Image: remote control plane via Flickr



Hannah Vinter


2011-12-20 17:24

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